Horror Movie Recommendations (Netflix Streaming)

Since October is already halfway over, I wanted to share my recommendations for horror movies streaming on Netflix. It took me a while to put this list together, but I feel confident that these are my favorites.

It Follows (2015) This is one of my favorite horror films of the last few years. One the one hand, this movie is a major tribute to 1970s horror flicks like David Cronenberg’s Shivers, especially visually, but the story rewrites the classic trope of teenage sexuality/fear of teenage sexuality and creates a truly terrifying monster that passes on from person to person through sex. It also employs the most haunting use of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that I’ve ever seen on screen. It must be said that A24 Studios is currently producing some of the most arresting American horror films. Pay attention to what they do.

Hush (2016) Directed by Mike Flannigan, this film does something unique with the home invasion and slasher tropes. The film centers around Maddie (Kate Siegel), a deaf mute who has to protect herself against a masked home invader. The use of sound in this film is especially nail-biting.

Raw (2016). This French film, directed by Julia Ducournau, is my favorite horror film of last year. It has a lot working for it: well-developed characters, strong visuals, unnerving scenes, and oh, cannibalism.

Creep (2014) This low-budget horror flick, directed by Patrick Brice, only features two characters: Josef (Mark Duplass) and Aaron (Patrick Brice). The film is haunting for the ways that it explores loneliness, social interaction, and what can happen when we respond to a Craigs List posting.

The Babadook (2014) What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this film? Memorable horror literature and films stand as allegories for our deepest anxieties, and I can think of few films in recent memory that explore the anxieties of child-rearing and motherhood as well as The Babadook.

Honeymoon (2014). I LOVE this film! The first time I watched this, it left me unsettled for days, and because I consume so many horror films, it is VERY rare that a film does that to me. This is another low-budget indie film, one that centers around a newly married couple who slowly learn that there is a lot they don’t know about each other. This film has prefect pacing, chilling scenes, well-written dialogue, and engaging characters. Check it out.

Hellraiser (1987) I had to include one classic on the list, and unfortunately, Netflix doesn’t have a lot of classic horror stock. This is the best Hellraiser film. Based on Clive Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart, this is the only Hellraiser film that he wrote and directed, and it maintains his exploration of sex, violence, pain, and pleasure that can be found in the novella. Pinhead and his merry crew of Cenobites are only in this for about the last 20 minutes, but the payoff is worth it. The humans are far more monstrous in this film, anyways.

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Corporate power, crisis identity, and environmental devestation in Blade Runner 2049

Releasing a sequel 35 years after the original is a risky move, especially a sequel to a film with the cult following that Blade Runner has, and yet, Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villenueve, not only matches some of the stunning visuals of the original film, but it also expands upon some of the philosophical questions of the original, especially what it means to be human in the age of the smart phone. It also warns about the effects of corporate dominance.

The sequel follows the story of  LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner who unearths a secret that can thrust what little remains of society into chaos.  The original film was gritty in setting and depicted the 1 percent living in towers, while replicants (AI, human-like beings) and actual humans fought for scraps on the streets of Chinatown. The gray reality of the working-class was juxtaposed with stylish advertisements for Coca-Cola and other products. The new film depicts an even more fractured society in which corporate power rules all and feeds off of division and wall-building. Sound familiar? Throughout most of the film, there is constant heavy rain, contrasted by even more big screen advertisements. The other cities depicted are either dry and barren, think of California after being engulfed by wildfires, or radiation-heavy, perhaps from a nuclear war. While the initial film showed how trickle down economics could lead to corporate overrule, the new film shows the consequences of oligarchy. The cities are barely habitable. Food is genetically modified. One of the main villains, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), is a heartless corporate master who wants to breed a race of slaves/replicants, no matter the costs, including the loss of human and non-human lives. For him, the only purpose of life, artificial or otherwise, is to serve corporate interests.

The original film raised questions about what it means to be human, especially through the relationship of blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and replicant Rachael (Sean Young). Deckard could at least touch and make love to Rachael, even if she was technically non-human. K’s girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas) is a projection, a hologram that dies when a smart phone-like device that contains her is stomped on by one of the film’s villains. All of the memories are stored on that device, much like pictures on our IPhones, so when it’s smashed, so is K’s fantasy of a meaningful relationship. This particular aspect of the story reminded me of Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, which also warned of a not-too-distant future in which humans fall in love with a technological projection, rather than seek out authentic human connection and physical touch. Joi is not that different from Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) in Her, in that both characters are not real. They are mere projections of the sexualized and idealized female. They can be whatever the male protagonist wants them to be. The difference between the characters, however, is that Samantha shows agency in Her and ends up dating thousands of other apps and AI. She eventually does what she wants.

The initial Blade Runner warned about the impact of trickle-down economics, consumerism, and the rapid advances of technology, especially AI. The new film is even bleaker in the world it depicts. The only hope that K clings to is  merely a hologram projection to cure his loneliness, some façade of normalcy and a world long gone. Right now, I’m hard pressed to find a film that better represents 2017. This powerful sequel also reminds us what it means to be human and the power of real, lived experience and connection, which stands in stark contrast and opposition to the world that corporate masters like Niander Wallace want to create and rule over.

 

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A Few Thoughts After Gettysburg

Being a PA resident, I’ve been to Gettysburg three or four times, including on a few school trips as a boy.  This weekend, I drove two and a half hours to return to the city for a poetry reading at the Ragged Edge Cafe. I’ve traveled all around the northeast, U.S. for various poetry readings, but this trip felt especially meaningful in the context of our current moment in history.

Gettysburg is a town that makes so much of its money recounting and re-enacting those three days in July of 1863, from the ghost tours and battlefield tours, to the countless gift shops  selling everything from pocket-sized copies of the Gettysburg address to toy cannons. There was something especially noticeable to me upon this visit regarding the shops on Baltimore Street. They had more Confederate memorabilia than anything else, including shirts with large Confederate flag images that read, “If at first you don’t secede, try again,” and “Heritage Not Hate.” This was especially striking to me, considering the thousands of men that died in Gettysburg and the fact that the battle was a turning point for the Union. I don’t know enough about the politics of Adams County, PA to say if the town swings conservative or liberal, but I assume the merch is selling, or, otherwise, the shop owners would not stock it. There were moments walking those cobblestone streets when it felt like the South actually won the war and was not driven out after three bloody days. Perhaps, though, the national debates about the Confederate flag have merely spread to Gettysburg, but the Confederate memorabilia did seem more visible since I was last there in 2013 for another reading.

The countless ghost tours are nothing new, and one historian who attended the poetry reading commented to me, “There were no ghosts in Gettysburg until 1985,” citing the proliferation of  interest in the paranormal. She admitted that she doesn’t disbelieve in ghosts, but she does have a problem with the monetary aspect of the paranormal tours. I have to confess that the last two times I was in Gettysburg, I went on ghost tours. This time, however, my girlfriend and I researched tours and found one that was praised by historians for being accurate and not relying on gimmicks and cheap tricks. Our tour guide used the idea of being “haunted” to frame the tour and confessed to us that he was an ex-NY firefighter who witnessed 9/11. He recounted the stench of rotting flesh and compared it to the millions of pounds of flesh that rotted on the Gettysburg battlefields. 9/11 is what haunted him, just as civilians who witnessed the battle would always be haunted by it. He told us stories of real people killed in war and showed us the famous bullet-marked brick facade of the Dobbins Inn. People on our tour drifted towards the building to touch it, closing their eyes and breathing deep while doing so, as if they could inhale the gunpowder. He then showed us one of the only still living trees on Baltimore Street that was there during Lincoln’s procession to dedicate the National Cemetary and give the Gettysburg’s Address.

My trip to Gettysburg this time was more profound and certainly more haunting. The town’s history is impossible to escape. It stares at you on every corner and in every gift shop. To quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This country’s long-standing ghosts are still haunting us and very much still shaping our politics.

 

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In Praise of October

Happy October! So begins the 31 days of my favorite month. I like to make an argument that October is one of the best months of the year, at least if you live in the tri-state area in the U.S. The temperature has yet to sink low enough to crank on the heat. There is a crispness, sure, especially in the mornings, but you can still have sunny 70-degree days. Summer flowers still have a little life left in them, at least for the first half of the month. Wilted summer flowers are then replaced by mums, which are just as gorgeous and can withstand the first few frosts, sometimes surviving until Thanksgiving. Then, of course, there is the brilliant foliage, which is at its peak this month. Lastly, it is the one time of year when people don’t mind indulging my love of horror movies, and increasingly, I see posts on social media for horror movie recommendations.

Soon, I am going to make a list: my top horror movie recommendations on Netflix and Amazon Prime (which has far more options). I’ll try to include some indies mixed with canon.

For now, here is a poem in celebration of autumn, “An Autumn Prayer.” Thanks to The West Texas Literary Review for publishing this.

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Upcoming Literary Events

To anyone local who reads this blog, here are some announcements about upcoming literary events.

Friday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m.

Open Mic Night for Writers

Cafe Sevda, Scranton

FREE, though it is encouraged you purchase a drink or snack.

Saturday, Sept. 30, 7-9 p.m.

Writers Showcase Fall Edition

Olde Brick Theatre, Scranton

Featuring: Pat Farnelli, Tara L. Marta, Shawna Hogan, Alex Lotorto, and Kevin McDonough

$4 at the door

Writers  Showcase September  2017-page-001.jpg

 

 

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Mother, Mother, Mother

I assume that I’m not the only one whose social media feeds included conversation, anger, praise, or all out confusion about the latest Darren Aronofsky film, Mother! The film first generated buzz when reports surfaced that it was booed at the Cannes Film Festival weeks ago. After seeing it over the weekend, my reactions to it are still mixed.

First, let me state that there are aspects of the film I liked a lot, including its dream-like quality that reminded me of much of Aronofsky’s work, especially Black Swan, but more so, I really enjoyed the use of the classic Gothic tropes, specially the setting, a run-down house in which every floor board creaks and light bulbs fill with blood (Amityville Horror, anyone?). I also related to Jennifer Lawrence’s nameless character, a woman who painstakingly tries to make her husband (Javier Bardem) love her, including painting and renovating his former home, which burned down years ago. The house is a nice representation of the strain in their relationship and the female protagonist’s ultimate descent into madness (again, another classic Gothic/horror trope).

Generally, I think, audience members will probably root for Lawrence’s character to resist her domineering partner, especially as he invites more and more people over, against her wishes, beginning with a nameless couple played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris.

Harris and Pfeiffer’s acting is solid, but some of the dialogue is just too heavy handed, especially when Pfeiffer’s character asks Lawrence’s character why she doesn’t want kids.  At times, I felt like I was hit over the head through the not-so-subtle symbolism and dialogue. Leaving the theater, I thought of films that handle some of the same topics better, namely Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and, more recently, The Witch. The exploration of male dominance and feminist resistance are a centerpiece of those films, but more artfully explored.

The film can also be viewed as an allegory about the creative process. Without spoiling too much of the film, especially the ending, I will merely state that Lawrence and Bardem’s characters each create something. The film is an exploration of what people endure, especially a couple, during the creative process.

What irked me most about the film, however, is the fact that Lawrence, generally someone who plays a tough, inspiring female lead (Think Silver Linings Playbook or The Hunger Games), isn’t given enough moments of resistance in the film. It does come, but it is too short-lived. It is not even clear why she fawns over her partner so much. His character is not given much story. All we really know is that he’s a writer whose house burned down.

Mother! is a polarizing film,  but, at the very least, the film is generating a lot of discussion and debate. Give it a viewing and see what you think.

 

 

 

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Let’s Talk about It

Lately, this blog has become a venue for writing about the horror genre, especially horror films. Horror has consumed part of my life as I work on putting together a horror lit and film class for the spring semester. Because of that, all of my reading lately has been a lot of film criticism and re-reads of classic horror novels. I wasn’t going to offer any commentary on It, but the movie is deserving of thought (and criticism) because of the massive opening weekend it had, raking in about $117 million, thus having the biggest opening weekend for any horror movie and the third highest opening weekend of 2017.

I want to theorize on why It is such a draw and also part of a larger trend. I also want to offer some criticism of the film, where I think it fails, what I believe it does well, and what I hope to see in the second chapter, set for release in 2019.

It is part of a trend of 1980s nostalgia,which follows the success of Netflix’s original series “Stranger Things,” which draws on a few of Stephen King’s stories and adaptations, including It and Stand by Me, namely because it too is a coming of age story about a group of less-than-popular adolescents. It  stars one of “Stranger Thing’s” actors, Finn Wolfhard, who plays foul-mouthed Richie. His one-liners drew audible laughter when I saw the movie on opening night. Yet, before “Stranger Things,” there was the success of the independent film It Follows, which is one of my favorite horror films of the last few years. That flick also has 80s nostalgia, not only the soundtrack, but also the set design. There are scenes in the film where it is unclear if we’re watching something David Lynch directed in 1985 or a contemporary horror film. Prior to It Follows, there was 2009’s House of the Devil, also one of my favorite horror films of the 2000s. Directed by Ti West, this film is set in 1983 and follows the story of financially-strapped college student Samantha Hughes, who eventually encounters a Satanic cult. This film is very much Ti West’s love letter to the 1980s period of horror, specially the rash of movies that deal with Satanism, but the film is strong because of its character development, its use of sound, and the unnerving, slow burn storytelling. These are the same reasons that I like It Follows so much (and it also has one of the best on-screen uses of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” that I have ever seen).

It is hard for me to pinpoint why there is such an interest in 1980s nostalgia in the horror genre right now. Some directors may simply feel that the 1980s is one of horror’s last great periods, before the constant rehashes and remakes. It was also a time period pre-9/11, pre-economic recession, pre-Trump, so there may be a fondness for that time period that overlooks some of its real issues (such as trickle down economics, economic inequality, and the Iran/Contra scandal).

This brings me to It. One of my main gripes about the film is that the 80s nostalgia is overdone. There are posters of 80s movies, including Gremlins, that are center frame in several shots. The outfits of the members of the Losers Clubs, the group of geeky outcasts that confront Pennywise the Dancing Clown, are, for the most part, 80s-themed. Yet, none of this really does much to advance the story. Instead, I wanted to know more about the town of Derry, Maine. Why, for instance, does Pennywise even chose to haunt that town? Does he have any relation to it? Why does he emerge after so many years?  Was he tortured or killed by residents of the town? One character, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), spends much of his time in the town library, researching local history, but what he finds doesn’t deepen the setting. It also doesn’t provide any context or background to Pennywise. Instead, we’re taken on a 1980s trip, complete with the kids riding around on their bikes in the burbs, similar to “Stranger Things.”

My other complaint about the movie is its lack of character development and its reduction of Pennywise to jump scares and CGI. The challenge of bringing It to the screen is its ensemble cast.  Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has the most character development, after his little brother, Georgie, is killed by Pennywise in the opening scene, which is also the most effective scare scene in the film because Pennywise is not reduced to CGI. He talks, and he is seductive and terrifying in the way that he plays on Georgie’s fears. Georgie’s death looms over the rest of the film and haunts Bill.

The second film will feature the Loser’s Club as adults, just like King’s novel. Pennywise will return to haunt them, and I hope the film will rely less on CGI jump scares. I would like to see more natural effects. Tim Curry was more believable as Pennywise because of the simplicity of his make-up and his dialogue. He truly could be something realistic from our nightmares.

There are parts of the film I really liked, however. As I stated, the opening scene was perfect, everything from the mood, including the pouring rain in the burbs and the mass of gray clouds, to Pennywise’s introduction. I want to see more one-on-one, unsettling encounters like that in the second film. Let Pennywise linger beneath the surface, in the sewer grate where he lures Georgie to his death. Show us the way he exists beneath the surface, in the subconscious of the characters. That makes him a lot more chilling than over-the-top CGI scenes.

I also loved the coming-of-age scenes between members of the Losers Club, how they bond over being outsiders, how they eventually confront the real-life bullies that torment them. In fact, I wanted to stand up and cheer when they pelt the bullies with rocks and force them to retreat. My favorite scene in the film, other than the opening, occurs in the final moments, where they hold hands in a circle and vow to confront Pennywise as a team if he ever returns, and, of course, we know that he will. I hope that this group of misfits is developed a lot more in the sequel so we can feel for them more individually and not just see them as one group of people that a demented clown wants to kill.

I recommend people see the movie. Buy some popcorn and enjoy the ride because it’s a fun one. I just hope the sequel relies less on rehashed tropes and jump scares and instead develops the Losers Club and their nemesis Pennywise much more.

 

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